China makes just about everything we consume these days, and lately they've even been making inroads in one of the few remaining American-dominated industries: entertainment. Director Zhang Yimou has transformed himself from maker of quiet little films like Raise the Red Lantern to an auteur of action, as in Hero. But if you're looking for another Hero, which featured Jet Li and a Who's Who of martial arts superstars, you might be disappointed. Then again, if you'd like to see something with a bit more Raise the Red Lantern in it, you're in luck. House of Flying Daggers is, at its heart, a love story -- with flying daggers.
The film is set in ninth-century China, where the unpopular central government has an uprising on its hands. A mysterious rebellion is afoot, and government agents are out to expose members of the secret House of Flying Daggers. A blind girl, Mei (Ziyi Zhang), is their only link to the enemies of the state, so they set a trap for her. But naturally, Mei is a lot more then they bargained for. In the end, nothing is as it appears, and as fortunes are reversed, love and jealousy complicate everything.
Like Hero, House of Flying Daggers is made up of a series of set pieces involving sword-fighting and martial arts -- oh, and lots of flying daggers. But Yimou has made this film even more beautiful -- his use of color is hypnotic, from the ornate Peony Pavilion where Mei dances to the lush bamboo forests where danger lurks. Yimou loves Zhang's face, and he gives her plenty of lingering close-ups in her saturated costumes. And the action is more elegant, too, with his use of slow motion and his camera following all those flying daggers as they cut through the air and find their marks. When those daggers come out of nowhere, it's a neater cinematic trick than most of the overblown CGI shots coming out of Hollywood.
Still, House of Flying Daggers suffers from the kind of emptiness that plagues many American films -- the kind that are compared to a ride at Disneyland, then forgotten. This is more like a visit to an art gallery. That's not all bad, though too much melodrama keeps Daggers from being a great film (like Hero). But it is great looking.